Does the university have an obligation to provide affordable food to students?

Does the university have an obligation to provide affordable food to students?

[Written by Sophie Cassel]

[Image Credits: Lara Delmage]

Content Warning: Discussion of poverty and mental health

There is one thing most University of Glasgow (UoG) students appear to agree on: The food on campus is too expensive. A meal deal for £3.60 or a wrap priced at £3.22 does indeed seem a sizable cost for a lunch – and this is with the student discount already applied. Considering that access to food is crucial to the general well-being and academic performance of students, access to reasonably priced food must surely fall under the university’s obligations to its students.

This is especially true because the high price of food on campus is not an isolated issue and can only be understood in the context of other financial pressures faced by students. Gourmet cafes are popping up around the university, while cheap food options near campus are becoming sparser. An example is the recent opening of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) G12 cafe, which sells Starbucks coffee by day and craft beer by night. These options are in no way reflective of a student budget. Instead they seem symptomatic of the process of gentrification, whereby neighborhoods are modernized and subjected to price hikes in order to accommodate a more affluent crowd (De Gracia, 2017). The cost of student housing and accommodation are also increasing rapidly, becoming unaffordable to more students each year (Collinson & Brignall, 2019). The combination of these multiple pressures is inducing increased financial insecurity amongst students, with overpriced food on campus adding yet another financial burden (Bachelor, 2015).

It is no wonder then that many students seek cheaper alternatives off campus. I myself have only been a student here for a little over a month, but have avoided the university cafe’s as often as possible, preferring to eat the food I have prepared at home or bought elsewhere. The problem is that it is not always convenient for students to go home for a meal or to walk to and from a shop. On multiple occasions I had about ten minutes to spare before class, and found myself wondering where I was going to find an affordable meal. Each time I ended up buying something at the library cafe or the Fraser building because it was the only convenient option. I also know this will continue to happen whenever I am pressed for time. But really, shouldn’t the university offer lunch options which don’t leave students feeling like they overspent on an unsatisfactory meal? 

There are several reasons why the university must consider reducing food costs in its institutional obligations to students.

Food insecurity is a growing issue on university campuses (Gurney-Read, 2016). Nearly half of students in Britain have expressed concern about having enough money to buy essential groceries, according to research by the National Union of Students Extra (NUS Extra). 71 percent of students reported feeling anxious and stressed about their finances. According to a survey by savethestudent.org, students said they will miss social occasions due to their inability to afford drinks or dinner. This can have a big impact on relationships and friendships (Hughes, Serebryanikova, Donaldson & Leveritt, 2011). A further, often overlooked issue, is the stigma attached to not being able to afford food, which can result in students feeling too ashamed to talk about being hungry (Yavorski, 2017). Many students commented that not having enough money at university can be a lonely experience (Butler, 2017).

Food insecurity has also proven to be a significant deterrent to academic success (Blumenthal & Chu, 2018). It is often a reality that if nutrient-dense and cheap food is not accessible, students often opt for nutrient-deficient, cheaper options or may even skip a meal. Studies have shown that undernourishment and stress caused by food insecurity may seriously impact concentration and class attendance, which in turn increases their risk for lower grades (Dubick, Mathews & Cady, 2016: 21). Food insecurity has also been found to increase the risk of depression and anxiety amongst students (Bruening, Brennhofer, van Woerden, Todd & Laska, 2016: 1453).  In extreme cases, food insecurity may force students to take time off or drop out of university. (Dubick, Mathews and Cady, 2016: 21) 

On a structural level, low-income students are especially at risk of food insecurity as they are already struggling with a great number of financial issues. When prices become higher, they often do not have any stability to fall back on and will be forced to make cuts somewhere, mostly on food. When the price of food rises alongside accommodation or living expenses, low income students will experience the most severe consequences because they will not have a safety net to fall back on (Blumenthal & Chu, 2018). Research has also identified international students as being at higher risk of food insecurity as a result of the exceedingly high cost of their tuition fees (Shen, 2019). The NUS has accused universities of treating international students as “cash cows,’ especially because international students are commonly subjected to unregulated fee rises after having begun their course. The criticism also pointed out the contrast between the time and energy put in by universities to get international students through the door and the consequent lack of attention paid to their needs once they arrive on campus (Espinoza, 2015). We live in an age where our society is becoming increasingly commodified, and universities are no exception to this process. The fact that students often buy food at campus facilities, because there is no time to go elsewhere, means that the steady flow of student customers will never decrease. There is very little that students can do if the food is priced extortionately. The cost of our campus food seems to reflect the neoliberal trend where capital is favored over the needs of the citizen, or in this case, the student. As an institution, the university must meet the needs of the entire student body, since if food on campus is not accessible to everyone, the university risks exacerbating systemic economic divides between students.

UoG has promised to ensure “a wellbeing and engagement culture that places students (and other service users) at the center” of its priorities. However, overpriced food does directly affect both the wellbeing and engagement of students at university. When students do not have access to affordable food, they are at higher risk of stress, decreased mental health and malnourishment. Their level of social engagement may also be put at risk if they cannot afford certain activities. These findings highlight that UoG needs to consider these consequences in order to fulfill its promise to its students. Considering that UoG has also promised to provide “accessible services to all students” and is working hard to increase access to these services for all students, food prices must be addressed as campus food surely falls under the category of “services” (University of Glasgow: Student Services).

UoG is by far not the only university where campus food is too expensive, highlighting that food insecurity is a widespread issue amongst students throughout the UK. Several universities have responded to this problem by implementing food banks on campus, which offer students who lack consistent access to food the option of a free meal (Bruening, Brennhofer, van Woerden, Todd & Laska, 2016: 1453). While university food banks operate in different ways, most are run by the Students’ Union in collaboration with University advisors (Moore, 2019; Northumbria Students Union). This is one short-term initiative UoG might consider implementing in order to ensure that the most financially insecure students will always have access to food. 

In the long term however, the university should work towards catering to the entirety of the student body by reorganizing its hospitality services. A good place to start might be with offering a larger variety of hot and cold meals, and possibly moving away from the meal deal as the staple of every facility. Perhaps the concept of the meal deal eludes me because I am not British, but there must be an alternative which is less pricey, more filling, and does not involve three plastic-encased items. Another key point is that these services must be easily accessible on campus, and provide the option of grabbing a quick meal between classes. Several universities outside of the UK, Germany being an example, have a canteen system with fixed price lunches. They serve a large variety of hot and cold dishes which change weekly, and are usually priced below 3 euros. This is just one example of a campus food system which caters to and fulfills the needs of all students. The bottom line is that a much greater effort needs to be made to ensure all students have consistent access to healthy, convenient and affordable food.


Bachelor, 2015 –https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/aug/15/soaring-student-rents-college-accommodation-crisis

Blumenthal and Chu, 2018-  https://www.clasp.org/press-room/news-clips/food-insecurity-college-campuses

Bruening, M., Brennhofer, S., van Woerden, I., Todd, M., Laska, M. (2016) “Factors Related to the High Rates of Food Insecurity among Diverse, Urban College Freshmen”, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116:9, pp. 1450-1457.

Butler, J. (2017) Save The Sudent available at: https://www.savethestudent.org/money/student-money-survey-2017.html

Collinson and Brignall, 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/aug/17/university-you-know-the-fees-but-what-about-the-costs

De Gracia, G. (2017) “The Dark Side of New “Trendy” Neighborhoods: Gentrification”, Affinity Magazine, available at: http://affinitymagazine.us/2017/04/26/the-dark-side-of-new-trendy-neighborhoods-gentrification/ 

Dubick, Mathews and Cady, 2016- http://studentsagainsthunger.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Hunger_On_Campus.pdf

Espinoza, J. (2015) “Rise in foreign students amid accusations universities use them as ‘cash cows”, The Telegraph, available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/12029604/Rise-in-foreign-students-amid-accusations-universities-use-them-as-cash-cows.html

Gurney-Read, 2018- https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/student-life/12081236/Students-going-without-food-to-meet-costs-of-university.html

Hughes, R., Serebryanikova, I., Donaldson, K., Leveritt, M. (2011) “Student Food Insecurity: The skeleton in the University Closet”, Nutrition & Dietetics, 68:27-32.

Moore, B. (2019) “We Are Stoke-on-Trent: The food bank for students”, BBC, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-49842550/we-are-stoke-on-trent-the-food-bank-for-students

Northumbria Students’ Union, “Student Food Bank”, available at: https://www.mynsu.co.uk/getsupport/yourwellbeing/nsufoodbank/

Shen (2019)- https://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/universities-take-steps-to-tackle-food-insecurity-on-campus/

University of Glasgow: Student Services, available at: https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/studentservices/

Yavorski, K. (2017) “The College Students who are Starving in Silence”, PacificStandard, available at: https://psmag.com/education/college-students-starving-in-silence

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